Surf-City Spotlight: Designer Cynthia Rowley

Gearing up for your next trip to the beach? Check out the sporty-chic wetsuits of designer Cynthia Rowley in our Surf City Pop-In Shop. As longtime admirers of the designer’s many talents (including surfing!), we were stoked to have a chance to ask her a few questions. Rowley is the genius behind a mind-boggling array of insanely cool fashion, culinary, art and cultural projects. How does one woman do it all so well? Read on for her answers, which include an awkward Project Runway moment and a near-death experience with a happy ending.

THE THREAD: What was it like growing up in the suburbs of Chicago? Do you think it influenced your career path and aesthetic?
CYNTHIA ROWLEY: When you grow up in a small town in the Midwest, you’re forced to use your imagination a lot to stay entertained. My mom is an artist and my dad a scientist, and they both really encouraged me to sew and be super-creative. Unfortunately, that unique combination of influences can collide and lead to a lot of embarrassing childhood fashion photos.

Rowley on the red carpet at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, followed by a few last-minute modifications to a dress of her own design. 

Can you describe the first dress you constructed when you were seven years old? Why did you make it, who was it for, what did it look like?
CR: My mom was trying to keep me out of trouble one summer, so she gave me some fabric and a needle and thread. I used the scraps to put together a “two-piece ensemble,” which I held up with a clothesline belt. I loved it so much, I wore it every day.

Were you studying other kinds of art at the Art Institute of Chicago, or were your sights set on fashion all along?

CR: I actually wasn’t thinking about fashion when I started at the Art Institute. I originally wanted to be an artist, but then I thought it would be much easier to make a living in fashion! Ha! Fortunately, I found that there is a shared creative process for both that I really enjoy.

What was it like to have your first collection picked up while you were still in school? Were you nervous about how to follow up on that initial success?

CR: I was so naïve that I didn’t think of the next steps. I literally got the order and was like “Okay, now what do I do? Oh, now I have to make all this stuff?”

Any stories you can share from the Project Runway set?
CR: About a year ago, I ran into a girl at a fashion party. I said hello because she looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I knew her from. She said, “You voted me off the show!” Oops!

Stellar wetsuits by Cynthia Rowley in Wax magazine. Photos by David Brandon Geeting.

Tell us about some of your art-world endeavors—collaborations with the Gagosian Gallery and with Nick Cave and other artists. What have been some of your favorites? And why is it important for you to have creative outlets in fashion?
CR: My husband owns an art gallery, and together we started Exhibition A, a website that sells contemporary art at accessible prices, so we are lucky to be surrounded by a lot of art and artists. I would never go as far as to say that fashion is art, but there is a kinship in the creative process.

I enjoyed being a part of Move, where ten artists and ten fashion designers were paired together to create work for MoMa PS1. And for the Gagosian Gallery, I was excited to be able to do something really innovative for the consumer. We took photos of my fully accessorized runway looks, printed these to scale on fabric, then made them available for purchase literally minutes after the looks hit the runway. There’s definitely a clear correlation between art and form that I love experimenting with. I still draw and make art all the time.

What is the story behind your CuRious Candy collection?
CR: I founded the Pretty Penny Incubator fund, which is an initiative established to encourage staff members to bring their entrepreneurial ideas to fruition. After launching Exhibition A, the next exciting idea to come out of the incubator was CuRious Candy, a themed Tim-Burton-meets-Willy-Wonka experience filled with curated treats, fanciful gifts and imaginative party decor for all ages.

How did you get into surfing, and what do you love about it?
CR: Many years ago, I bought a little shack on the beach in Montauk. My neighbor said, “You can’t have this house and not surf,” so he took me out for a lesson and I was immediately hooked. That being said, I’m definitely a better designer than I am a surfer. My husband likes to joke that I’ve been “trying” to surf for 14 years.

What have been some of your favorite places to surf? Any crazy surf stories? We’ve heard you have a special connection to Montauk—what do you love about it there?

CR: I surf anywhere I can and as often as possible. Fortunately, I’ve only had one near-death experience, which was in the Dominican Republic. My leash broke, my board got washed to shore and after a lot of yelling and screaming, I was finally saved by a really cute Dominican surfer. All’s well that ends well, as they say!

Tell us some details about your wetsuits, rash guards and other surf gear. What inspired you to design them? What are some key details or your favorite aspects of them? What do you enjoy about mixing fashion and function? How important is it to look good when you’re surfing?
CR: I didn’t like looking like a little dude in the water, so I wanted to make a wetsuit that was aesthetically pretty and fully functional. I worked with a well-respected surf brand on the first suits, and I loved designing and making them so much that it’s grown into its own thing now.

It’s not really exclusively about surfing, though. It’s about a healthy, active lifestyle. And the great thing is that now these feminine, brightly colored wetsuits have grown and inspired some of our ready-to-wear pieces, like our skirts and some cool tees. Throw on a pair of cut-off jeans with one of these shirts and you’re ready to hit the beach.

See more from Cynthia Rowley in our Surf-City Pop-In Shop.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Amy May 9, 2014, 7:40 pm

    Stellar interview – thanks CR for being so candid! Encouraging a healthy lifestyle with this surf wear is admirable and needed. Now I’m inspired to find those connections between art and my own passions. Glad I stopped by! xo

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